Selectmen Formulate Plan To Tackle Flag Policy
By Kristen Arute, Published: August 5, 2020
[Hingham Current News File Photo / Kristen Arute]
In their meeting on Tuesday night, the Board of Selectmen acknowledged that the time had come to address the town's approach to flying various flags on Town property. "A flag is a piece of cloth," said Selectman Bill Ramsey, "but it projects tremendous feelings on it for people. It’s very difficult for a government board to be the arbiter of what means what to certain people. It’s a very emotional issue for all people involved."
Selectman Joe Fisher agreed. "Flags have symbolism, and that symbolism is important to various groups," he said. "We as a Board need to get a good understanding and appreciation of what the symbolism means to each group so that we can have the discussion about flags with respect." He went on to point out that the Board only has oversight with regard to municipal assets. "We need to be clear that what we’re talking about are town assets that are subject to the jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen," said Fisher. "School assets are controlled by the School Committee. We are not talking about a policy that would affect school assets."
Ramsey listed the flags that are currently flown on assets controlled by the Selectmen. "We fly the flag of the United States pursuant to federal law. We fly the POW/MIA flag also pursuant to federal law. Those are required flags to fly on municipal buildings," he said. "We also fly the flag of the Town of Hingham pursuant to the order of this Board, and between May 7th and May 15th every year as we’ve done for the past 5 years, we fly the peace officers memorial flag." The flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is also flown by executive order of the Governor of Massachusetts. "I think it’s imperative that policy related to the first amendment remain consistent," said Ramsey. "Without consistency, inevitably litigation comes. Ultimately the policy will need to be consistent to survive legal challenge."
The Board of Selectmen unanimously agreed to adopt a 4-step plan of action proposed by Chair Mary Power that is designed to inform the Board on how best to proceed with formulating a flag policy. Power recommended that the Board:
Document the exiting practice
Review and discuss in a public meeting all of the input
Two weeks later provide another opportunity for input and take a vote as to whether or not to modify the existing practice
"(Town Administrator) Tom (Mayo) and I had some discussions about a process," she explained. "Our current state is to document what are we doing right now. We started by going back to the June 4th minutes when the Board took up flying the pride flag."
The next step would be to provide citizens, interested parties and employees the opportunity to share their input in the specifics of a policy. Power referred to this phase as "obtaining input."
"My suggestion is that the three of us (members of the Board of Selectmen) individually reach out to town employees," said Power. "I'm thinking specifically about the police department and the fire department." She added that she and Mayo had already identified different civic groups to talk to also. "I’m thinking about groups such as the Pride Committee. Potentially the Unity Council. Maybe the American Legion," she said. "I think we need to reach out to the Veterans Council."
In addition to town employees and civic groups, Power noted that members of the public should be involved in the conversation. "This is a subject of immense public interest, and I don’t want to shortchange the conversation," she said. "I think we have to have an opportunity for Hingham citizens who kind of don’t fall into one of those groups to be able to provide us some input." She suggested setting up a new mailbox at Town Hall where letters could be sent for the next 30 days or potentially having public input during one of the upcoming Selectmen meetings. "I would also seek that we would ask (Mayo) and (Assistant Town Administrator) Michelle (Monsegur) get some comparative data from our benchmark communities," she added. "If another community’s already done something, let’s build off that rather than creating it ourselves. Let’s look at our 20-town comparison towns because that’s what we do with many other things."
During the "obtaining input" phase, Power recommended that the Board also seek advice from town counsel. "Just basically to give the Board and the town some guidance on if we are going to modify the existing practice in any way, what sort of legal considerations might there be," she said. Power suggested that the Board obtain that input over the next 30 days, and then at a Selectmen meeting in early September she "would also see us hearing from members of the community about what they would like to see and what they wouldn’t like to see." Two weeks after that meeting, she envisioned that the Board would take a vote to either codify the existing practice as it’s written or alter it in any way. If at that point it seems as though the issue is more complicated that originally thought, Power felt the Board may want to "designate a group of people to help us."
It was agreed that the input phase would go through September 15th and a vote would be taken by the Board at the end of September. Members of other civic groups that were not mentioned in the meeting were invited to reach out to Mary Power to be included in the conversation.
Board of Selectmen Chair Mary Power can be reached at email@example.com.